*Burckhardt, Jacob Christoph
Burckhardt, Jacob Christoph
Although Jacob Christoph Burckhardt gained the greatest respect for his seminal study Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860; The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), his contribution as an essayist is equally remarkable, though much less known today and relatively difficult to fathom. Born in Basle, he spent most of his life there teaching and writing, reaching out to the public through lectures and essays and through editorial work with the Baseler Zeitung (Basle news) and other publications. Whereas his books are primarily concerned with historical and art historical subjects, such as Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen (1853; The Age of Constantine the Great), Der Cicerone (1855), The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and, finally, Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien (1867; The History of the Renaissance in Italy), all his other publications, many posthumous, are based on philosophical reflections, lecture notes, and drafts. Burckhardt did not compose essays in the narrow sense of the word, but dealt with history in an essayistic manner. In particular he expressed his view of history in Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (1905; Reflections on History), in Historische Fragmente (1929; Judgements on History and Historians), and in many letters, which were revised and edited by Werner Kägi, Burckhardt’s successor in the chair of history at the University of Basle.
Burckhardt was reticent about his lecture notes, refusing to let them be published during his lifetime. Only on his deathbed did he give permission for the printing of his insightful historical-philosophical studies. These lectures focus on the historical process itself, on humans’ dependency on time, and on the interaction of state, religion, and culture; others analyze what makes some people famous and what constitutes their fortune. But the majority are purely historical, emphasizing individual periods or personalities.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who came to Basle in 1869 as professor of classics, was one of the few who seemed to have fully understood Burckhardt’s complex and not always clearly structured presentations. He praised him for being an individual thinker and an enemy of fashions and modern trends in scholarship. In 1910 Carl Neumann lauded Burckhardt’s works as masterpieces of the “cultural-historical” style. Johann Huizinga
admired him as the “wisest spirit of the 19th century,” and he is now considered to have been one of the finest essayists of the 19th century in the field of world history and art history.
Whereas traditional historians have pursued an interest in the process of times and events, Burckhardt investigated the constitutive elements of specific epochs such as the Italian Renaissance and attempted to grasp its universal characteristics. Moreover, he deliberately distanced himself from structural, social-historical, and economic approaches. Instead he emphasized the individual person, both an active and passive being in history, as the only worthwhile object of study. For that reason he dismissed any questions about the prehistorical origin of peoples and countries because the data about those early periods are too fragmented and do not inform us about actual people from that time. “Primitive” people and religions were of no interest to Burckhardt because he only examined “sophisticated” or “high” European cultures, which excelled through their intellectual productivity and corresponding art forms. The entity of culture as a holistic phenomenon dominated his thinking, but he ignored, deliberately and entirely, Asian and any other non-European cultures, concentrating instead on the history of ancient and modern Europe.
At the same time Burckhardt was neither an idealist nor an elitist, and did not believe in the absolute goodness of humankind. According to his view, in his later years strongly colored by Arthur Schopenhauer’s teachings, historical investigations always reveal the good and the evil in humans, and the dream of reform to establish an ideal society is in vain. Even happiness is no guaranteed goal; the best that can be hoped for is the absence of misfortune. In his essayistic writing Burckhardt increasingly expressed a distrust of historical progress and lamented the decline of modern culture in terms of the loss of communication, individualism, leisure, and cultural education.
His essays are cultural-historical studies that examine the totality of a period, a people, or a genre (e.g. arch forms in architecture, madonna paintings in art). Burckhardt studied the difference between barbarism and culture, the contrast between antiquity and the modern world. Characteristic features in his lectures are the reliance on anthropomorphic images (e.g. the youth of the Middle Ages), the preference for organic concepts (e.g. “life of humankind”), emphasis on idealistic concepts, and naive but possibly brilliant generalizations (e.g. “Christianity,” “the Church,” “the Jews,” “Heathendom,” and “the forces of a time period”).
Burckhardt’s basic concept of past cultures was not limited by the approaches and methods traditionally pursued by historians. His essays addressed a more nonacademic audience, being written from a philosopher’s rather than an academic scholar’s point of view. His understanding of history as an academic discipline was based on the concept of a universal spirit expressed in culture, and the spirit of individual epochs of history, captured in their art. Nevertheless Burckhardt did not believe in the religious telos of history, and considered Christianity, like any other religion, as an historical phenomenon in the cultural process from the past to the present.
Art history represented an important aspect of Burckhardt’s research and teaching, and in many of his critical writings he examined the art works from the past as reflections of the human dimension. For many years Burckhardt lectured on both history and art history at the University of Basle; later he even abandoned the purely historical discipline. His highly acclaimed study on The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is based not only on many art historical observations, but also includes extensive and detailed examinations of Renaissance art. In this sense Burckhardt developed into a perceptive cultural historian who incorporated the various elements of past cultures in his essays and analyses of those times. The purpose of art was, according to Burckhardt, to serve religion, even during the Italian Renaissance. Yet art appeared to him as an expression of the ineffable, a reflection of the mystical realm, a phenomenon which can be appreciated but not intellectually penetrated. Art is autonomous and can only be approached through feeling and intuition.
Art objects are therefore representations of the “true” world and contain the key to absolute truth. Burckhardt did not consider art history from a chronological point of view, but in terms of genres, aesthetics, and styles. He believed art enjoys a form of autonomy and cannot be interpreted using social, economic, and political criteria.
Burckhardt pursued history through the eyes of an art historian, art history through the eyes of a theologian, and the history of religion through the eyes of an historian. For him, cultural history is intellectual history, or the history of the spirit of a culture. Not surprisingly, the individual, as it emerged in the age of the Italian Renaissance, appears as the major factor in the development of culture. The historian must therefore examine all aspects of daily life, in particular literature, arts, religion, the state, the educational system, festivities, and morality. The individual, Burckhardt’s prime object of study, reflects the totality of society. The historian’s purpose, then, is to trace the development of humanity as it is expressed through both the visible and the invisible, i.e. the factual and the spiritual world. Although this contradicts the search for the individual, Burckhardt was convinced that great men and women determine the course of history and lead to humankind’s telos.
Burckhardt writes succinct and carefully crafted sentences, and successfully conveys his opinions and conclusions to his readers. His writings and lectures were especially aimed for the enlightenment of the public, without losing the quality of academic scholarship. With his publications he targeted the thinking reader, those among his audience who could enjoy true beauty and the teachings of the past.
Born 25 May 1818 in Basle. Studied theology at the University of Basle, 1836–39; history and the history of art under Leopold von Ranke, University of Berlin, 1841–43.
Editor, Baseler Zeitung, 1844–45. Visited Italy, 1846. Revised and edited the Geschichte der Malerei (History of painting) and the Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Handbook of art history) by his teacher Franz Kugler, 1847. Taught at the Pädagogium, Basle, 1848, and at the Polytechnic Institute, Zurich, 1855; chair of history and art history, University of Basle, 1858–93. Rejected offer to succeed von Ranke as chair of history, University of Berlin.
Died in Basle, 8 August 1897.
Essays and Related Prose
Die Kunstwerke der belgischen Städte, 1842.; in Frühe Schriften, edited by Hans Trog and Emil Dürr, 1930
Griechische Kulturgeschichte (lecture course), edited by Jacob Oeri, 4 vols., 1898–1902, and Rudolf Marx, 3 vols., 1952; abridged version as History of Greek Culture, translated by Palmer Hilty, 1963
Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, edited by Jacob Oeri, 1905, Rudolf Stadelmann, 1949, Rudolf Marx, 1955, and (with Über das Studium der Geschichte), Peter Ganz, 1982; as Force and Freedom: Reflections on History, edited and translated by James Hastings
Nichols, 1943; as Reflections on History, translated by M.D.H., 1943
Vorträge, 1844–1887, edited by Emil Dürr, 1918
Unbekannte Aufsätze…aus Paris, Rom und Mailand, edited by Josef Oswald, 1922
Historische Fragmente (vol. 7 of his Gesamtausgabe), 1929; as Judgements on History and Historians, translated by Harry Zohn, 1958
Weisheit aus der Geschichte, edited by Otto Heuschele, 1968
Die Kunst der Betrachtung: Aufsätze und Vorträge zur bildenden Kunst, edited by Henning Ritter, 1984
Other writings: works on the history of art (including Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen [The Age of Constantine the Great], 1853; Der Cicerone [The Cicerone; or, Art Guide to Painting in Italy], 1855; Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien [The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy], 1860), poetry, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Gesamtausgabe, edited by Hans Trog, Emil Dürr, and others, 14 vols., 1929–34; Gesammelte Werke, 10 vols., 1955–59.
Flaig, Egon, Angeschaute Geschichte, zu Jacob Burckhardts “Griechische
Kulturgeschichte”, Rheinfelden: Schäuble, 1987
Gitermann, Valentin, Jacob Burckhardt als politischer Denker, Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1957
Hardtwig, Wolfgang, Geschichtsschreibung zwischen Alteuropa und moderner Welt: Jacob Burckhardt in seiner Zeit, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974
Heftrich, Eckhard, Hegel und Jacob Burckhardt: Zur Krisis der geschichtlichen Bewusstseins, Frankfurt-on-Main: Klostermann, 1967
Jaeger, Friedrich, Bürgerliche Modernisierungskrise und historische Sinnbildung: Kulturgeschichte bei Droysen, Burckhardt, und Max Weber, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994
Kaegi, Werner, Jacob Burckhardt: Eine Biographie, Basle: Schwabe, 8 vols., 1947–82
Maikuma, Yoshihiko, Der Begriff der Kultur bei Warburg, Nietzsche und Burckhardt, Königstein/Ts.: Hain, 1985
Siebert, Irmgard, Introduction to Aesthetik der bildenden Kunst by Burckhardt, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992: 1–34
Winners, Richard, Weltanschauung und Geschichtsauffassung Jakob Burckhardts, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1971 (original edition, 1929)
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